Book Review: The Broom of The System by David Foster Wallace

This past August I visited a friend of mine in Berlin. One sunny afternoon, we went out to eat at a Vietnamese Restaurant in Neukölln with our girlfriends, as well as a couple of his acquaintances. I got into a conversation about literature with one of his friends who seemed to be very interested in philosophy. He recommended reading The Broom of The System, a novel he characterized as dealing with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas on language and how the context of the spoken word influences its meaning. As a matter of fact, David Foster Wallace himself stated that the novel could be seen as an ongoing dialogue between Jacques Derrida and Wittgenstein. Up until this point I had not even known that the novel existed. I knew about Wallace but I plainly associated him with Infinite Jest, a book I, like so many others, have not had the courage to read yet. But The Broom of The System really intrigued me, given that Derrida, Deconstruction, and post-structuralism in general are ubiquitous in fields like literature or media. Sure enough, a few days later I went to an American book store, found a copy and bought it. The reputation of Infinite Jest as a notoriously difficult novel, as well as the philosophical subject matter of The Broom of The System kept me from opening the book for a couple of weeks. But when I was on a plane to the States I felt the sudden urge to start reading and was quite surprised when I finished the first few chapters.

This is not a book to be afraid of!

First, I want to address the writing style. Wallace has a very descriptive way of writing, meaning that he describes things in detail but he does so very intelligibly. One reason why his style is so comprehensible is his use of the English language. He refuses to use “puff words” that are in his opinion pretentious, unnecessary, and a waste of time. This makes the book incredibly easy to read, especially for someone who speaks English as their second language. I don’t know if I have ever read a book that I was able to visualize so effortlessly in my head. Also, Wallace’s writing is hilarious. I had to chuckle throughout the whole thing, just because of its absurdity and witty humor. There is also something about reading it as a college student because Wallace was himself still in college when he wrote it. Lenore, the story’s main character, is about my age and is one of many characters I will never forget because they are all unique and multifaceted. What the main characters have in common is that they all seem incapable of communicating properly, which is the root of almost every problem in the novel. That is probably intentional, given that the whole story centers around language. The book is a prime example of metafiction, continiously referencing its own constructedness with several mentions of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. There are several instances where Lenore questions her own existence because she believes that things can only exist when spoken or written about, which is a hundred percent true in her case. In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein claimed that the meaning of words is defined by their use in a given system. Wallace proves this point by naming two of his major characters Lenore. Throughout the novel I always knew which Lenore he was talking about because it was obvious from the context. There is also a passage in the novel where Lenore talks to her brother LaVache, who seems to take a more Derridian approach to language, claiming that anything can be interpreted the way you want to interpret it, that the reader gives a sign its meaning. But this is the only time I thought I noticed a discourse between Wittgenstein and Derrida. The only thing that bugged me a little was the final chapter. There were quite a few loose ends and the ending seemed a bit abrupt but I was still completely satisfied after a few minutes of reflection had passed.

While The Broom of The System is a profound novel, it is not overwhelmingly philosophical. If you do not have aspirations to decipher every semiotic reference that comes your way, you will still have a splendid time reading it purely for entertainment purposes. It is not a difficult novel and I would recommend it to anyone who wants an easy introduction to Wallace’s work.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“If you do not have aspirations to decipher every semiotic reference that comes your way, you will still have a splendid time reading it purely for entertainment purposes.”

Published by timothywhitlock

German-American, writer, boyfriend, media student, musician.

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